Bus entertainment in Mexico

Commuting by bus in Mexico: Part II

I have the misfortune of needing to commute to work every day here in Toluca, Mexico, where I live. Most of my life I have ridden a bicycle to work or, in some special cases, walked. So I sit on the bus for an hour or two each day. Small things become interesting. Last week I wrote about how even choosing the seat is an adventure.

The entertainment isn’t over once you have your seat. Apart from the mountain views and crumpling concrete charm of this mid-sized Mexican city, entertainment boards the bus for you.

The most common performer is the singer/guitarist. Sometimes he’s a good singer, but the guitar is always out of tune. Or you get an accordion player, usually an old man who looks used to hard living. They always get my change.

I’ve seen clown shows. A whole family paints their faces and wears oversized pants and shoes. They yell and run up the aisles. Like the musicians, they have a spiel at the end asking for money.

These temporary riders aren’t strictly entertainment. Most days you see people with bags of candy. Or newspapers. They leave one on your lap. Disabled people leave a little note that explains their problem. They give their spiel and then come back for whatever they left. Just let them take it and smile if you don’t want to give money.

The buses themselves can provide the entertainment. The driver usually has a friend or two hanging out. They might be yelling at each other in loud voices, smoking cigarettes, and not paying very much attention to the road. They might get mad at another bus, cut them off, jump out and challenge the other driver to a fight. I’ve seen that happen on several occasions.

Entertainment is what you make of it.

Black Friday at the mall

Why do I do this to myself every year?

Oh, you all know what Black Friday entails. A bit of (OK, a lot of) pre-planning is required because you need to know which places have the items you want. Especially the items you decided to wait until the last minute to buy for Christmas. Then you have to plan which hours, merchandise and crowds are expected. Then the travel time and the method.

The idea of waking up at 3 a.m. is getting tossed out the window. I mean, it’s not like I was ever a morning person. To expect organization on top of that is insane. What is doubly insane is venturing outside. I thought (in a crafty yet not) way last year that I’d avoid the traffic and driving hassle by riding the bus.
They run early for us folk without our own transportation. It was a solid plan as the driver would then be pressured to drive on time with a bus full of irate people. Less pressure on me who can chill riding to said stores.
I forgot one thing. The irate people. Crammed like sardines we were. Folks who probably didn’t sleep, or plan or bathe all, grumpy like me because unless you are a night shift worker or generally not a night owl, you WILL be grumpy. The only person that was probably used to such odd hours was the poor driver who was competing with other drivers, buses and what not, concentrating on not driving the bus into a lake. 
After discovering this painful reality of people who are not pleased, I discovered that I didn’t make any headway on my shopping goals that year at all. So this year? I’m just sleepin’ in.

Commuting by bus in Mexico

Choosing the perfect seat.

Choosing the best seat is important for a 40-minute commute in Toluca, this mid-sized city in Mexico where I live. The buses are different from in the United States: they're a third shorter, with the boxy dimensions of a large passenger van. Most are beat up inside and out.

Old advertisements peeled off the outer walls of the vehicle left streaks and scratches. Fenders are beaten to a pockmarked pulp, or are nonexistent. The seats inside are worn down to the underlying fabric, torn or completely open, exposing dark grey foam. They might be disconnected from the metal bracings. This is your worst seat.

In fairness, there are a lot of new buses. They are sparkling clean and more spacious. They have the government slogan on the walls. When a different political party takes charge, they repaint the buses and garbage trucks and put up promotional signs. Right now the slogans are variations on “Piensa en Grande:” Think Big.

Mexican roads are full of speed bumps. Often an impatient bus driver will get his front tires over it gently, only to speed up and hit the back tires hard. So if you are in the back half of the bus you will bounce up in the air like if you did back in elementary school while singing that awful song. How did it go again?

But don’t sit in the front seats. An old woman or pregnant lady is bound to get on, and as a gentlemen (or woman) you are bound to offer her the seat.

So you are best off somewhere in the middle. But which side? The sun can blaze pretty hard through the windows on a smoggy street.

I take the same route every day, but at different times. Most days I can’t remember and end up surprised. Sometimes it is nice to get that sun. Usually the shade is nicer. But nothing beats getting off that bus and getting your land legs back.

My bike and bus riding daze

A former bus rider looks back.

I avoid downtown Minneapolis like the plague these days, but once upon a time it was a place I frequented.   In fact, I had to be downtown if I wanted to go out and about, because practically all bus routes in the western Twin City metro radiate in and out of there, including those I rode from my part of town out in the western suburbs.   If I wanted to take Metro Transit across town, or venture into the southern suburbs, I was going to be downtown whether I wanted to or not.

This was back when personal transport was a non-existent commodity for me but I refused to be stuck in my neck of the woods by it.   Metro Transit provided the best solution, but it helped to have a bike to supplement it with because, let’s face it, you can’t get everywhere around town on the bus.  As far as the Twin Cities go, there are bike trails aplenty that could get me to where I wanted to go or provided a more direct route than the bus did.    Nevertheless, you could count on finding me downtown waiting to catch the bus home towards the end of such sojourns.

If it was at rush hour on a weekday, I would hop the Route 674 bus that would take me all the way to my neck of the woods via the freeway.   If it was a weekend, I would inevitably be on the Route 675, a combo express/local service that used the freeway out of downtown but soon left it to provide service to local neighborhoods as well as Ridgedale Mall in the outer suburb of Minnetonka.

So there I would stand in Nicollet Mall watching the conga line of buses belonging to Metro Transit and other lines plus the occasional public safety vehicle as I waited for mine to arrive.   Frequently I would check my watch and/or consult my schedule, wondering where is it? Or worse did I miss it?!

Then I finally would spot my bus lumbering down the mall towards where I stood.   After it pulled up beside me I would go to swing down the front bike rack, hook up my bike to it, board, pay my fare, and take my seat.

Now scenes like that pictured above are no more for me, because I now am a happy, carefree licensed driver who, while he still loves to ride a bike, does not miss the city bus one bit.  

Getting sick on the bus

The bus with no bathroom: pt.II

Last time I wrote my story of getting stuck on a long distance that had no bathroom. It’s especially bad when you are drinking. But sometimes peeing isn’t the only thing you need a bathroom for. And once again, this is also caused by drinking. In Mexico City one morning I had one of those brutal hangovers that comes from a full day and night of heavy drinking, Mexican style, the day before, which means beers all afternoon and then a switch to booze once the sun goes down. I think it was Bacardi. This is trouble.

I was sick the next morning, and as my friend navigated through heavy freeway traffic to the bus station, buses spewed thick black smoke right down into my soul. His truck bounced over potholes and speed bumps, he weaved from lane to lane, and I turned green. Finally at the station I said goodbye, bought my ticket, and got on the bus. As always, I checked the back – no bathroom.

Minutes after sitting down I felt everything begin to spin. I ran off the bus just in time, throwing up all over the back tire. The lady standing at the bus door taking tickets wouldn’t let me back on. “Why,” I said. “You already took my ticket.”

She said it was because I was puking. “But I have to go,” I said. Finally I realized (this was all in Spanish) that she was telling me to go in the bus station to get a plastic bag. It was a relief, not to mention reasonable and as it turned out a good idea. The bag was full by the time I got off two hours later, and I can’t say I made any friends on that ride.

Stylish bus transportation

Way better than boring billboards.

I just can’t get enough of buses turned art exhibits. I mean buses on their own are boring things; they are generally metal tubes with seats shoved into them. They hold you and take you to various other places. You can look at one, from school buses to public transportation buses to cross country buses, and pretty much get the gist of what a bus is.

But when a creative artist and a bus collides, you end up with the most creative use of a metal mobile tube ever. I mean who could ignore a bus appearing to be wrapped around tightly by a giant snake? Well other than people who fear snakes but still? The fact that an artist can get the effect of a snake closely hugging and constricting around a bus is rather cool.

Or a bus cinched in by a giant seat belt? Or one with a person painted on the front as if the bus hit them and forgot to pull them off like an unfortunate fly? OK, that last one would bother me for a minute only because I’d then wonder why the bus driver had not tended to the guy.
But did each one not get you to look? To see what it was about? That’s the fun of fantasy bus art, it makes you stop and stare. And considering that most bus ads in general are boring typical billboard ads with words or pictures of happy travelers, having art like this makes a bus and its message stand out.  

The bus with no bathroom

Careful before you open that beer!

As a teenage screw-up, I thought that drinking with my friends on a long distance Greyhound ride was the funniest thing ever and a great way to pass the time. Years later having a few beers (although in a much more low-key way) on a long distance bus also seemed like a good idea in South Korea, a country that has a very lax attitude toward public drunkenness.

My friends and I were traveling from the rustic island of Ganghwa-do back into the mad metropolis of Seoul. What looked like just a few hours on a map was in reality a whole day affair once we hit traffic. We hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before because what looked like a peaceful place to set up a tent on the beach was actually a nightmare. A nearby fish restaurant stayed open all night and blasted the same song for hours on end.

So before getting on the bus we all bought a handful of beers. Nobody looked at us twice. The first half of the trip was great – riding on twisting roads through the rice patties and green mountains of the island, and then crossing the bridge onto the mainland and satellite city of Incheon.

Then about four or five beers in, we hit the standstill traffic of Sunday afternoon Seoul. It was time to pee. But no bathroom! After so many Greyhound trips – not to mention lots of bus trips in Europe – I had taken it for granted that there would be a bathroom on the bus and hadn’t even checked.

Stupidly we finished the beer, thinking the traffic would get lighter, but we truly suffered for the several hours we had to wait in stop-and-go traffic. When the bus finally arrived in central Seoul, we ran into the station for the bathrooms. Now I make sure to always check for a bathroom, whether here in Mexico where I live now, the U.S., or anywhere. I might not drink beer on buses anymore, but a few cups of coffee beforehand can make for a really long trip.

Who wouldn't want to ride the bus after watching this commercial?

Riding the bus: an enjoyable experience?

Now I’m no stranger to a bus. They tend to be at times (earlier in the day) decently clean, well maintained and overall comfy. Sometimes (later on in the day) they can be smelly, crowded and full of people that have no idea what washing or not blocking the walkway. But in general, a bus is an OK and generally not that unpleasant of a way to get around.

Once in a while I’ll see a commercial about our local bus transit, with the same five generically ethnic cast you see in every ad since the '90s looking like they all huffed a bag of helium off camera to even remotely look as gung-ho about riding a bus. A BUS, guys. But man, do the peeps overseas have us beat. These guys in this commercial aren’t just happy, they are like freaking enthusiastic about riding that bus. 

Midttrafik Commercial - "The Bus" (With English Subtitles - HD)

Taken straight out of a Michael Bay explosiongaza, this commercial is just a giant 'WHAT IS THIS?' for buses. The seats are pristine. The stops are awesome; the bus driver is so damn cool that people are scrambling to ride. In fact, the other bus route riders are jealous. You would be too if your driver did full on doughnuts on the street.

This video may be a tongue in cheek parody and may indeed by mocking the hell out of American blockbusters, but you can’t deny that raging urge to ride that pimp bus. I mean, that driver is just cool. 

Buses are a pain!

It’s always all or nothing.

I truly despise having to rely solely on buses to get around.  Back when I was still living in New York, buses were something I had to use on a daily basis.  It was a major pain.  The buses never seem to be there when I needed it most.  I was constantly waiting for a very lengthy amount of time in order to even get on the bus.

On the bus sign, it usually states how often the buses are supposed to arrive.  However, there really is no point in even looking at this information.  The buses do not actually come at the intervals that they claim.  The buses always take a lot longer to arrive than whatever the bus signs actually claim. 

Eventually, the busses will arrive.  However, they do not just come one at a time.  No, they have to all come at once.  So often, I have witnessed four different buses from the same line arriving at the bus stop at the exact same time.  Like, how did they even manage to do this?  Were they not supposed to come like fifteen minutes apart from one another?  Then how did they end up getting there at the same exact moment? 

I have my own theory about that.  I am guessing that all of the bus drivers decided to take a break together.  Then they started work again from the exact same point.  Therefore, they end up driving one right behind the other out on the road.  That would explain why at bus stops you either see multiple buses or none at all.

You hate the bus? Why not just use the train…like a hobo?

Free train rides without all that extra stuff...like seats and toilets.

No really, hear me out. I mean buses can be a painful experience, what with the sitting in a metal tube with assorted strangers that may or may not have the wherewithal to: 

  • Board the bus sober
  • Keep their kids restrained
  • Keep their inside voices down
  • Don’t eat and leave a mess everywhere
  • To not board without bathing first (evening and people returning home from work I give a pass, but common morning commuters, you are just getting up for work: no excuse!)

A bus ride can be boring or it could be really annoying if these needs aren’t met. But a hobo gets what bus riders (or plane, ship, car or other transport) don’t – the adventure of illegally huddling onto train cars! Yes, for the price of free, adventure (and possibly brave stupidity) you get to huddle into probably unclean, non-heat insulated train cars to relive the old days where people snuck onto trains to get to places. It was like back packing with balls/ovaries/chutzpah. 
Toilets? What toilets? Food? You best packed some in your back pack. Conductor, I need to stop here? Oh no you leap the hell out and hope you don’t hurt yourself.
I was reading an article about the modern day hobo (yes people still sort of do this). Hobo apparently aren’t homeless vagabonds just searching for a place to live; they are the first backpackers but with trains. They have their own society too, even holding yearly gathers for hobo pride.